Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast #115: The Lethal Evidence of Sir Bernard Spilsbury (Pathologist to the Home Office)
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Welcome to the Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, set within and beyond the West End.
EPISODE ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN
Sir Bernard Spilsbury was an acclaimed pathologist and the father of forensic science whose most celebrated case made his name and changed the face of murder investigations forever. In Room 15 of Albion House at 55-57 New Oxford Street that a ghastly murder was supposedly concocted. But how solid was his evidence, and did it lead to an innocent man being executed?
As many photos of the case are copyright protected by greedy news organisations, to view them, take a peek at my entirely legal social media accounts - Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
The location of Albion House at 55-57 New Oxford Street, where Dr H H Crippen met his mistress, supposedly planned his wife's murder and (a few doors away) purchased the poison which would end his wife's life, is marked with a quail green triangle. To use the map, click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, such as Soho, King's Cross, etc, access them by clicking here.
I've also posted some photos to aid your "enjoyment" of the episode. These photos were taken by myself (copyright Murder Mile) or granted under Government License 3.0, where applicable.
SOURCES: To name a few...
Old Bailey Court Transcript - https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t19101011-74
As well as the British Newspaper Ardhive.
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
SCRIPT: Welcome to Murder Mile; a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk featuring many of London’s untold, unsolved and long-forgotten murders, all set within and beyond the West End.
Today’s episode is about Sir Bernard Spilsbury; the acclaimed pathologist and father of forensic science whose most celebrated case made his name and changed the face of murder investigations forever. But how solid was his evidence, and did it lead to an innocent man being executed?
Murder Mile is researched using the original police files. It contains moments of satire, shock and grisly details. And as a dramatization of the real events, it may also feature loud and realistic sounds, so that no matter where you listen to this podcast, you’ll feel like you’re actually there.
My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 115: The Lethal Evidence of Sir Bernard Spilsbury.
Today I’m standing on New Oxford Street, WC1; two roads north of the St Giles’ workhouse where Charlie Chirgwin’s life was ended by an officious little jobsworth, two roads south of Zakaria Bulhan’s delirious rampage in Russell Square, a few doors down from the deadly tidal wave at the Meux & Co brewery, and one street east of the bloody conclusion to the mummy’s boy’s killing spree - coming soon to Murder Mile.
Situated just shy of Tottenham Court Road tube station, unlike Oxford Street, New Oxford Street is a vague part of Bloomsbury where a multitude of people pass through every day, but no-one stops, as there’s no real shops. There are the usual branded things like a coffee place, a sushi place and a burger place, as well as a pub chain, a church and a pointlessly tacky tourist shop which sells stereotypically British crap covered in Union Jacks, all of which were made in China... but there’s no reason to head there or even to stay.
At 55-57 New Oxford Street on the junction of Bloomsbury Street sits Albion House; a nine-storey glass-fronted eyesore on a small square block which rents out offices to an odd mishmash off small businesses, such as a dentist, an estate agent, an energy consultant, a radio engineer and even a darts-themed pub.
More than a century ago, before its demolition, the original Albion House was a four-storey building with an identical purpose. In Room 15 was a small independent druggist called Munyon’s Remedies, a patent medicine company churning out a plethora of potions to put-pay to all kinds of ailments in an unregulated era, back when any old quack could concoct a wonder cure, regardless of whether it worked or not.
During the January of 1910, being sat alone to brood, it was in that building that a small bespectacled man met his mistress, formed his deadly plan and a few doors away he purchased the poison to end his wife’s life. The trial made Sir Bernard Spilsbury a celebrity, his medical testimony became bulletproof, it changed the face of forensic science and it would become one of the world’s most infamous murder cases ever.
And yet, it was here, in Room 15 of Albion House, that a ghastly murder was supposedly concocted. But how accurate was Sir Bernard’s evidence, and did his ego send an innocent man to his death? (interstitial)
The characteristics of a successful serial-killer are an unquestionable self-belief, a supreme confidence to convince others and an unshakable arrogance in the face of conflicting opinion, as well as a hunger, a drive, a power, an ego and a selfishness to destroy other people’s lives in the pursuit of their own goals.
Given his troubled background, his abandonment by his parents, his dubious education and his isolation throughout his life, it could be said that Sir Bernard Spilsbury had all necessary characteristics to become a highly respected pathologist, as well as a middle-class murderer, or maybe... he would become both?
Bernard Henry Spilsbury was born on 16th May 1877, above his father’s chemist shop at 2 Regent Place in Leamington Spa, a spa-town in Warwickshire. Stemming from a long-line of working-class inn-keepers, his father James sought a loftier existence for his eldest son and pushed him to live his dream he never could.
As the first-born son of James Spilsbury Jnr, being a young boy, Bernard adopted his father’s passion for science and his fascination for crime, as well as his ambition, his work-ethic and a need to be respected, but he also absorbed his father’s coldness, his arrogance and his lack of empathy.
Educated privately at home – with no-one to interact with but his siblings, his tutor and the housemaids - Bernard made no friends, especially when (aged nine) his parents abandoned him to a boarding school for three years, a new world he was ill-equipped to deal with. Being quiet; he kept to himself, he resented others and – hearing only his own opinions - he became fixated by his own success, beliefs and superiority.
But as his father expanded his business further, the family were often uprooted. In 1889, aged 12, they moved to Salford in Manchester. In 1890, aged 13, they moved to Crouch End in London, with Bernard briefly educated at University College School. And in 1892, aged 15, his father enrolled Bernard at Owen’s College in Manchester to study chemistry, physics and biology, as his family stayed behind in London. He had no friends, no family, no interest and no drive – and feeling isolated – he spent his time walking alone.
In 1895, aged 18, James Jnr sent Bernard to study Natural Science at Magdalen College in Oxford to fulfil his father’s dream of becoming a doctor. Described as lazy, argumentative and ill-prepared, Bernard’s tutors said he was a moderate student who disliked being proved wrong, refused to read the texts properly and was unlikely to get even a third-class degree. In 1898, he passed with a second, but only just.
It’s baffling to think that the future Home Office Pathologist and father of forensic science whose damning evidence would hang people’s lives on his every word was - at best - a ‘D-grade’ student... but he was.
In September 1899, aged 23, having failed to get a scholarship at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, Bernard enrolled as a medical student at St Mary’s, with no plans, no interests, no medical speciality and no career.
Compared to the other students, Spilsbury was unremarkable.
Being an impressive man of six-foot two-inches tall, he stood out, but being cold and unassuming, he was later described by Professor Sir Sydney Smith as “very brilliant, but fallible and very very obstinate”.
Although a dogged workaholic, being crippled by back pain, Bernard frequently abused painkillers. By his late twenties, he had lost his sense of smell (an invaluable tool for a medical professional). As a fifty-a-day
smoker he developed circulatory problems. And having severed the tip of his right index finger, to remain useful, he had to retrain his hands to be ambidextrous, but a successful career in medicine looked unlikely.
Later, in 1908, he married Edith (the daughter of a dentist), they had four children together and they lived in a nice house in Harrow-on-the Hill. In short, Bernard could have become just another doctor...
...and yet, it was at St Mary’s that he would meet Augustus Pepper and his life changed forever.
August Joseph Pepper was the senior surgeon at St Mary’s who pushed the envelope of medical science and – as a noted Pathologist to the Home Office – was witness for the Director of Public Prosecutions. With pathology and forensic science still in its infancy and regarded by the medical establishment as ‘the beastly science’, as one of the few trusted experts, Pepper was in high demand at London’s murder trials.
Being fascinated by Pepper, Bernard became his assistant, a menial role in which he prepared the bodies for autopsy, but every day was a revelation and he loved learning from his father figure. After two years, Bernard was appointed as surgical dresser to Pepper and side-by-side the two prepared evidence for trial.
In November 1904, at Thames Police Court, Bernard made his first court appearance as expert witness to the prosecution in the murder of Emily Farmer; a shop assistant who (the Police surgeon stated) had died of suffocation having been gagged by robbers – a crime that warranted the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Oddly - for such a solitary, arrogant and obstinate man like Bernard – in court, he found his true voice. By dressing smartly, speaking well and - never using fancy words to show-off his intellect - he impressed both the lawyers and the jurors by delivering a well-explained analysis of the medical facts in layman’s terms, defending the cross examination in a quiet convincing way and demolishing the Police surgeon’s theory. In a short trial, Bernard’s evidence was so lethal, that the robbers (Conrad Donovan & Charles Wade) were found guilty - not of robbery nor manslaughter - but of murder, and both were sentenced to death.
Over the next few years, Bernard developed his experience, his knowledge and his techniques, he passed his second medical degree and became the resident Assistant Pathologist at St Mary’s, alongside Pepper.
In July 1909, as August Pepper retired from St Mary’s and as the Pathologist to the Home Office, at the tender age of just thirty-three-years-old, Bernard Spilsbury became his successor.
His first notable case as pathologist occurred on 12th July 1909, in the hair salon of Harrod’s, when twenty-year-old Horn Dalrymple ordered a dry shampoo from experienced hairstylist called Beatrice Clarke. Using a highly toxic but entirely legal mix of carbon tetrachloride and carbon bisulphate, a potion stronger than chloroform, although it had been safely used for the six years prior, it resulted in the young girl’s death.
At Kensington Coroner’s Court, Bernard proved to the jury that the shampoo was fatal and Beatrice Clarke and the salon’s manager (William Eardley) were charged with manslaughter. Bernard was a lethal witness; his knowledge was exhaustive, his evidence was trusted, his testimony was infallible and the jurors hung on his every word, like it was the word of God. But the biggest case of his life was yet to come...
...and it would change forensic science forever.
Prior to Spilsbury, forensics was an afterthought in a murder investigation as the Police relied exclusively on witnesses, statements, evidence and a copper’s instinct, but science was just wishy-washy nonsense. Being barely out of the Victorian era - where a constable was more of a moral guardian than a detective - it was not uncommon for the Police to re-arrange a dead body to preserve its dignity, to wash away any bloodstains for fear of offending any passers-by, or to send a victim’s clothes to the cleaners before being examined by a pathologist. Crime scenes were rarely secure; evidence was lost, nothing was preserved, and even in court, many pathologist’s theories would be debunked as lazy, inaccurate and arrogant.
Bernard Spilsbury would change all of that... and he would make his name in one infamous case.
Born in Coldwater (Michigan) on 11th September 1862, Hawley Harvey Crippen was a small meek man of just five foot three inches tall and a slender seven stone in weight; with bookish spectacles, a neat mop of thinning ginger hair on his head and a Walrus-like moustache which was too big for his tiny round face. As a softly spoken and old-fashioned doctor, he specialised in ‘ears, noses and throats’ and was a qualified dentist, but being easily bored, he often flitted between different career paths when boredom struck.
In 1894, Crippen met and married Corrine Henrietta Turner, known as ‘Cora’; a striking music-hall singer who went by the stage-name of ‘Belle Elmore’. Being taller and sturdier than her tiny besotted beau, the two were an ill-matched couple from the start; as whereas she always strode, he hid in her shadow, and being little more than her henpecked husband, she had many affairs and her true love was back in Chicago.
In 1897, they moved to 34 Store Street in Bloomsbury (London), but with Crippen not sufficiently qualified to practice as an English doctor, he earned a modest living concocting homeopathic remedies for a patent medicine company called Munyon’s Remedies, based in Albion House at 55-57 New Oxford Street.
The building was fortuitous, as being a multi-occupancy premises for small anonymous businesses, as he sat alone in Room 15 devising a range of supposed remedies for common complaints like nausea, colds and nerves – by mixing natural and synthetic ingredients like willow, eucalyptus, cocaine and morphine with a large dollop of sugar – it gave Crippen the opportunity to keep a jealous eye on Cora and her affairs. As Albion House was also the home of the Music Hall Ladies Guild (where they were treasurers), Droeut’s Institute for the Deaf (with Crippen was the patron) and here he also “managed” his wife’s singing career.
In 1905, they moved into 39 Hilldrop Crescent in Camden (North London). With their eleven-year marriage in tatters, but unwilling to divorce owing to Crippen’s traditional values and religious beliefs, the shameful lies of their illicit liaisons struggled on for another five years, and as Cora started another affair in their home with one of their lodgers, Crippen began an affair with the Deaf Institute’s typist - Ethel Le Neve.
What happened next is mysterious and incredulous, but it would slip the noose around Crippen’s neck.
On 19th January 1910, at a chemists called Lewis & Burrows at 108 New Oxford Street directly opposite Albion House, as a herbalist who had visited there many times before, Crippen purchased five grains of hydrobromide of hyoscine; an entirely legal drug (which is still used today) for nausea, travel sickness and as a cough suppressant, which may cause euphoria and – like many drugs - in larger doses it can be fatal.
On 31st January 1910, after a party at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, at which neither of their moods were described as “friendly”, Cora disappeared, leaving behind many of her personal belongings. On 2nd February, Crippen wrote a letter in Cora’s handwriting resigning her position as treasurer, stating she had gone to California to nurse a sick relative. On 20th February, Crippen’s mistress – Ethel Le Neve – moved into 39 Hilldrop Crescent and (at a function for the Music Hall Ladies Benevolent Fund) she was seen wearing Cora’s furs and jewellery. With Cora’s loved one’s growing concerned, on 24th March 1910, Crippen sent a telegram stating that she had died in Los Angeles, and as no-one could find her, her friends notified Scotland Yard.
Believing this to be nothing but a domestic and bowing to the pressure of the Press who asked how a woman could go missing for six months without the Police lifting a single finger, Crippen was interviewed on 8th July 1910 by Chief Inspector Walter Dew, a perfunctory search of the house was conducted and Crippen admitted that he had fabricated the letter and made up the story of Cora’s death, as he was deeply ashamed that she had left him, having gone back to Chicago to be with ‘true love’ - Bruce Miller.
With the press picking holes in this sensational story, on 11th July, Inspector Dew went to Albion House only to discover that Crippen & Le Neve had fled to Antwerp and boarded a boat to Canada. That day, under public scrutiny, the Police conducted a thorough search of the house including the coal-cellar, but they found nothing. Two days later, under that same brick floor of the coal-cellar, they discovered a set of hair curlers, a tuft of bleached hair and the lower half of a torso wrapped in Crippen’s pyjama jacket.
Initially inconclusive whether it was animal or human, although its decayed internal organs were found in situ, the body was missing its head, limbs, bones and sex-organs. The only identifiable part was a six-by-seven-inch piece of flesh (possibly from the upper thigh and lower buttock), but the victim’s age, height, weight, gender and identity were impossible to establish from such a small specimen. On 31st July 1910, Crippen & Le Neve were arrested onboard a liner, and returned to London to face trial for murder.
The murderous case of Dr Crippen was front-page news across the world. With the press and the public voracious for details but critical of the Police’s early ineptitude, so needing a conviction, Inspector Dew sent the torso to the Home Office Pathologist Bernard Spilsbury and out of retirement Mr August Pepper.
The Police only had very circumstantial evidence; the torso was human, the pyjama top was Crippen’s, the hair-strands matched Cora’s natural colour and Crippen had admitted to fabricating two letters and telegram, having fled to Canada with his mistress. It was very suspicious, but did not constitute evidence.
All they had was a small piece of skin with a very small scar... but forensic science would save the day.
The five-day trial began at the Old Bailey on Tuesday 18th October 1910, with August Pepper rebuffing the defence’s assertions that the skin - which showed few signs of decay having been buried in a waterlogged soil for six months - had been preserved in an excellent state owing to quick lime in the clay. On Thursday 20th, William Willcox the Home Office’s Senior Scientific Analyst confirmed a lethal dose of hydrobromide of hyoscine in the torso’s liver, as purchased by Crippen. And that same day, being elegantly dressed and eloquently spoken, Spilsbury put the final nail in Crippen’s coffin, by matching the scar to an identical scar that Cora’s younger sister (Teresa Hunn) had seen across Cora’s abdomen, having had an ovariotomy.
The cross-examination of the defence was terrible, Ethel Le Neve blamed Crippen and with this creepy-little man unwisely giving evidence – as the medical experts had proven a date, a place, a method and an identity with just a single piece of skin - after only twenty-seven minutes of deliberation - Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen was found guilty and sentenced to death. With his appeal rejected by the Home Secretary Winston Churchill, on 23rd November 1910, Crippen was executed by hanging at Pentonville Prison.
Wearing a top-hat, spats and striped trousers, as the media darling of the trial, Bernard became the first Honorary Pathologist to the Home Office, an honorary Member of the CID, a celebrity, a household name and – knighted in 1923 - Sir Bernard Spilsbury was highly respected in the law courts and his evidence was hailed “as lethal as it was bulletproof”. In 1923, he created the ‘murder bag’ which revolutionised police investigations and forensic science. And across his fifty-year career he would conduct more than twenty thousand autopsies, providing key pieces of evidence and resulting in hundreds of convictions in some of Britain’s most infamous murder cases.
Sir Bernard Spilsbury was hailed as brilliant and his testimony was untouchable, as even if it was doubted by other experts, to every jury, his word became gospel. But as a cold and arrogant prima-donna who believed that he was truly infallible, some of those convictions are still being disputed today.
Infamous cases like Thompson & Bywaters, Frederick Seddon, John George Smith, John Robinson, David Greenwood, Sydney Fox, Herbert Armstrong, Jeannie Baxter and Albert Dearnley, to name but a few, at whose trials; suicides were disproved, bruises vanished, evidence was omitted and the presence of arsenic would magically materialise (when other medical experts had failed to find a single trace). Even in the case of Emily Beilby Kaye, he implied she had died by a blow to the head, only her head was never found.
Sir Bernard Spilsbury was also the pathologist on cases we’ve covered before, like Dutch Leah, Louis Voisin, the Charlotte Street robbery, the Blackout Ripper, and – of course – Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen.
Several issues came up at the trial, but all were expertly defended by Willcox, Pepper and Spilsbury.
Firstly; William Willcox admitted he’d only found that fatal dose of hyoscine in the liver after he was told that Crippen had purchased five grains of the drug from Lewis & Burrows, and its bottle was never found. Secondly; August Pepper stated he didn’t find the scar until two months after the autopsy and only after he had heard about Cora’s ovariotomy. And thirdly; Spilsbury refuted any claim that it wasn’t an operation scar on her abdomen, even though the skin has no belly-button, pubic hairs or sebaceous glands. Experts for the defence stated it was a skin-fold or a stretch mark, but there was no evidence of cutting or healing.
So, did the Police, aided by Pepper & Spilsbury manipulate the facts to bring about a successful conviction in a publicly scrutinised and sensational case, which was based on circumstantial evidence? Consider this...
Crippen was an unlikely suspect; small, meek and hen-pecked with no convictions or history of violence. The poison was an odd choice, given that he had regular access to cocaine and morphine. The torso was only found by the Police on the third search of the house, with a sample of her hair and his pyjama jacket.
But if this mild-mannered man had hacked-up his wife’s body and successfully disposed of her head, limbs and bones elsewhere (none of which have never been found) and expertly removed any clue as to her age, sex or weight, why did he bury half a torso under in his own cellar? Why was the only clue to her identity a supposed ovarian scar? And – if Crippen was right about Cora leaving him for her true-love - if the torso wasn’t Cora, then where did it come from? Perhaps a grave, a hospital, or maybe a mortuary?
And then consider this. In October 2007, Dr David Foran of Michigan State University subjected the scar tissue to DNA testing and compared it to the mitochondrial DNA of three of Cora’s surviving great-nieces. The DNA proved that the torso was not Cora Crippen... in fact, it wasn’t even a woman, but a man. (End)
The 1940’s would prove to be a difficult decade for Sir Bernard. Addicted to painkillers, crippled by two strokes and chronically depressed - owing to the collapse of his marriage, the death of his sister and both of his sons - his mental health was in sharp decline, as his work became all he had left. Having humiliated so many experts, he had very few friends, and now, aged seventy, he was making mistakes in his autopsies.
On the evening of 17th December 1947 at 7:30pm, Sir Bernard entered his small bleak laboratory on the second floor of University College Hospital. He hung up his hat, tidied up his bench, destroyed a few files and a photo of himself and his wife, and – being sat on a cheap wooden chair - he turned on a gas tap.
At 8:10pm, smelling gas, a laboratory technician found Bernard collapsed and unconscious, but with his pulse faint he was declared dead at 9:10pm. Many options were considered as to why he had died; natural causes owing to heart disease or accidental death as he had no sense of smell, but with his friend - Sir Bentley Purchase – conducting the autopsy, at the inquest, it was declared that Sir Bernard Spilsbury had died by “suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed”. He was cremated at Golder’s Green on 22nd December 1947 with only twenty-two mourners in attendance.
With both men dead, the truth about Crippen’s guilt goes to their graves. But if Sir Bernard Spilsbury did fabricate evidence for his own needs, let us ask two last questions; can we really trust his findings in any of these cases, and – if we can’t - how many innocents were executed at the hands of his lethal evidence?
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
After an advert for something you’ve probably never considered buying, we have lots of fascinating details about the case, plus a little quiz, some ranting and rambling by me over something pointless, some obsessing about Eva (obviously) and then I shall press stop. Good riddance!
Before that, a big thank you to my new Patreon supporters who is Jessica Peters, I thank you, your goodies are in the post and should be with you soon. Feel free to make all of your friends jealous. Plus a thank you to you and you and you and you and you and you and you.... but not you, cos you’re... urrrggghhh! Joke!
Murder Mile was researched, written and performed by myself, with the main musical themes written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name.
Thank you for listening and sleep well.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible, which are freely available in the public domain, including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, and are always incomplete or full of opinion rather than fact, therefore mistakes and misrepresentations can be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken to create a fuller picture. It is not a full and complete representation of the case, the people or the investigation, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity, speed and the drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, and therefore it will contain a certain level of bias and opinion to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated. Murder Mile is just one possible retelling of each case. Murder Mile does not set out to cause any harm or distress to those involved, and those who listen to the podcast or read the transcripts provided should be aware that by accessing anything created by Murder Mile (or any source related to any each) that they may discover some details about a person, an incident or the police investigation itself, that they were unaware of.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards", one of The Telegraph's top five true-crime podcasts and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 50 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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